12 July 2012 | General, FPS
Genetically Modified Trees Could Play Important Role In Combatting Climate Change, But Unified Policy and Regulation Approach Requirement To Address Public Concerns

12th July 2012 – Genetically Modified Trees (GMTs)plantations could play an important role in mitigating climate change and environmental pollution, but public concerns about the need and safety of genetically modified organisms requires the development of a unified approach in terms of policy and regulation for the environmental impact assessment and the safe development and practical use of GMTs according to speakers at a session organised by COST Action FP0905 ‘Biosafety of forest transgenic trees’ which took place today at the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin.

The current debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) currently focuses on crop plants, but not for forest trees.  Forest tress are of specific importance however as they have the potential to address the increasing worldwide demand for fuel, fibre and energy.  For example, genetic engineering has the potential to develop a tree which has a high biomass yield (e.g. more wood per unit area at less time), grows easily in variable climate conditions, can be tailored for specific uses (e.g. wood for energy) and does not require high amounts of water, nutrients or aid to protect its growth.

The rationale for opting for genetic engineering is that genetic improvement (breeding) of forest trees via cross-pollination is slow due to the long generation times and vegetative periods.  Due to global increases in energy costs and the growing investment in bio-based products, there is a heightened interest in Genetically Modified Trees as an alternative.

COST Action FP0905, which is currently underway and funded by the EU Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), aims to evaluate and substantiate the scientific knowledge relevant for genetically modified tree (GMT) biosafety protocols by putting together already existing information generated in various European countries.  Participants from institutions from 26 COST countries as well as 18 institutions from Albania, Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States are already participating in the initiative.

Commenting about –the FP7-funded COST Action FP0905 at the session, Dr. Cristina Vettori, Chair of COST Action FP0905, said “This initiative is fundamental, on the one hand, to address policy-making efforts and, on the other hand, to allow the scientific community to discuss to public concerns in a responsible way, particularly concerning socio-economic implications and biosafety issues of transgenic tree plantations.”

Dr. Richard Meilan, Associate Professor of Molecular Tree Physiology, Department of Forestry and Natural Resource, Purdue University, is currently investigating the genetic mechanisms by which key aspects of tree development is controlled and is also genetically engineering them to express genes that impart environmentally beneficial and commercially important traits.  As part of the session, he presented a biomass-related, domestication project underway in his laboratory. 

Commenting at the conference, Dr. Meilan said, “Domestication of modern agricultural crops through traditional means of plant breeding and agronomic modifications has resulted in advances in plant growth, pest resistance, and adaptation to cultivated environments. Although increasing the resources available to domesticate trees as biomass feedstocks using conventional approaches also would be successful over the very long term, their perennial nature, lengthy generation interval, and large size would severely constrain progress.”

“Accelerating the domestication procedures for biomass-feedstock plants has the potential to increase yields, improve feedstock uniformity, tailor the physical and chemical characteristics of the feedstock to their intended uses, reduce the cost of supplying bio-refineries with feedstock, improve conversion efficiencies, and reduce deforestation. Leveraging modern molecular genetics techniques, which do not require time-consuming sexual crosses that combine rare, desirable traits into a single cultivar by conventional breeding, should allow us to hasten the development of biomass species, such as those within the genus Populus, for use in dedicated energy plantations,” added Dr. Meilan.

An overview of reasons for differing perceptions about GM and proposed strategies to communicate the benefits of GM plants to a broader public was also explored at the session.

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